Public health leaders are now facing times that are as challenging as any we have seen. Over the coming year, massive state budget cuts will impact state health agencies across the nation. In North Carolina, the state public health agency is contemplating a cut of up to 15%; as a result, entire programs must be eliminated. In Texas, the magnitude of the cuts is staggering:
- The state faces an overall budget gap of $18 billion for 2012–13.
- Since health and human services represent approximately 31% of Texas state spending and since Medicaid spending and the Children's Health Insurance Program are off limits for cuts, public health programs are particularly vulnerable.
- As of September 2010, Texas state agencies had offered nearly 10 000 jobs for elimination1
Facing Challenges With Authenticity
John Gardner, a highly respected public leader and teacher, once advised leaders to “hone your authenticity.”2 In doing so, leaders can better withstand the demands placed on them in challenging times. So what should authentic leaders actually do and what should they avoid?
Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
All too often, in challenging times, leaders fail to say what they really mean. Furthermore, they may not “mean what they say”; they are, in effect, misleading their followers. In doing so, trust is eroded and defensive behavior abounds. All too often, leaders try to hide behind a mask, or let others deliver difficult messages that they are unwilling (or unable) to deliver.
In turbulent times such as these, leaders must remember that they may be asking people to give up a piece of who they are. Since a significant part of personal identity is derived from our work identity (particularly for public health professionals), loss of a job creates a partial loss of identity. So, leaders must be able to balance clear, authentic communication with expressions of true empathy.
Authentic leaders relate to individuals first as who they are, not just for what they can accomplish. We agree with John Gardner, who said: “we believe, with Immanuel Kant, that individuals should be treated as ends in themselves, not as a means to the leader's end, not as objects to be manipulated”.2
Leaders Must Deliver Difficult Messages Directly
Some individuals in leadership positions do not deliver difficult messages themselves; they ask others to do so. This lack of courage often sends a disturbing message to the entire organization and erodes trust and cohesion. If authenticity is central to building trust, hiding and masking will erode trust and severely damage organizational cohesion.
As noted earlier, many public health programs will be eliminated in 2011. Dedicated public health servants will lose their jobs, often because of factors beyond their control. One of the clear tests of leadership is not just what is done but how it is done.
If a leader knows that he or she must eliminate a program or ask someone to leave a position, it is essential that
- the leader communicate clearly and directly with the effected person(s);
- the leader must clearly state why the action is being taken and why he or she made the decision to act now;
- the leader must commit to doing his or her best to work with the effected person(s) to mitigate the impact of the decision; and
- the leader must display openness and empathy.
Building Authenticity in Organizations: Avoiding Masking
It has been said that “we don't want the boss just to understand emotions—we want them to have a few.” Most leaders wear masks to hide their emotional side and protect against vulnerability and loss of control. Patterns of masking include the following:
- Trying to be superhuman in the face of fatigue and shrinking resources.
- Attempting to hide doubts, fears, and uncertainty behind an optimistic exterior.
- Denying gaps in personal learning or acting defensive about managerial blunders.
- Ignoring the spillover consequences onto others such as colleagues and family.
These attempts at masking are usually transparent to those you are attempting to lead. As a result, masking has predictable consequences:
- Eroding personal and organizational authenticity
- Allowing a buildup of anger and resentment
We cannot teach leaders to fake authenticity. We hope that they can learn to be more empathetic, trusting, open, and genuine.
Building Authenticity in Organizations: Balancing Opposing Behaviors
As noted by Bunker and Wakefield,3,4 we expect leaders to be both “superhuman” and “just like me.” We want them to balance a set of behaviors that seem to be polar opposites, such as being
- tough and empathetic,
- courageous and vulnerable,
- passionate and compassionate,
- pillars of strength and regular/folks,
- self-reliant and trusting of others, and
- change advocates and conservers of the past.
As a result, leaders are challenged to balance behaviors that seem to be in opposition to each other:
- Catalyzing change while coping with transition
- Showing a sense of urgency while demonstrating realistic patience
- Being tough while being empathetic
- Showing optimism while being realistic and open
- Being self reliant while trusting others
- Capitalizing on strengths while going against the grain4
2011 will bring with it unprecedented challenges for public health leaders and managers. In challenging times, leaders must hone their authenticity by “saying what they mean and meaning what they say.” Furthermore, leaders must deliver difficult messages directly and avoid asking others to deliver difficult messages for them. Leaders should be on guard to avoid masking their true emotions and strive to balance leadership behaviors that may seem to be in conflict.
At the core of the challenges faced by leaders in the coming year will be building and rebuilding trust. This can happen only if leaders lead with authenticity.
2. Gardner J. On Leadership. New York: The Free Press; 1990.
3. Bunker KA, Wakefield M. Leading in times of change. Harvard Managment Update. 2006; 11(5):1–4.
4. Bunker KA, Wakefield M. Leading With Authenticity in Times of Transition. Greensbero CCL Press; 2005.